Untidy Reflections on Untimely Death
After the usual rush to make to basketball on time, we discovered the other team had forfeited the game. Children stood around disconsolately, until someone suggested a quick game of mums and dads against the kids. The game built quickly into a few minutes of delight.
Jobs and bills, homework and school bullies, were all forgotten in a glorious tussle. The love of parents for children, and the joy of children at taking down mum and dad, filled the court. This was life as it could be. Even life as it should be; lived in the moment, innocent and joyous.
The rules morphed from basketball to something else. The aim still seemed to be basketting the ball, but more fun could be had if you ran, rugby style, dodging, slipping and sliding, and passing to your friends. Mostly, it was about keeping the ball down your own end, and away from your parents!
When a dad dropped a wild pass from a mate set upon by four kids, a lad pounced upon the free ball. He tucked it under one arm, dropped his head, and as only an 11 year old can, ran doubled over down the outside of the court. In a second of horror I realised he was headed, literally, at the large scorer's podium on the side of the court. In the last half second, a burly father flung out an arm and pulled him into the court. There were howls of 'foul!' from children all over the court, and a collective letting go of breath, from those of us who had seen what nearly happened.
Disaster- unfair, unprovoked and undeserved, is never far away.
The moments of unrestrained joy drained away, as we parents saw what might have been, and the sobriety of the every-day returned.
For some reason, I remembered that evening as I drove to Peter Whittington's funeral yesterday. What would I have said, had no one caught the boy in time, and I been asked to take his funeral?
That sort of question is me thinking what life means when tragedy happens. Doing the funeral homily in my head, is a way of keeping honest, and not skirting the hard issues.
What would I say?
I could not excuse God. A lot of theology about pain and evil seems to me, to let God off the hook, as though it's not appropriate to place the blame where it belongs. If God is omnipotent, and God loves us, who else is to blame for untimely death? In the end, all the arguments about bad planning of basketball courts, come down to one thing; excusing God. All I could say, if that Dad had missed him, and he'd collided with the podium and died, is that there are no answers for such a tragedy.
I could not say "God had called him home," or the "Lord had wanted him." That makes God into a capricious monster. It maybe lets me feel better, if I don't think too hard about it, at the expense of the parents, who are left with their loss.
I could perhaps have affirmed, as we did at Peter's funeral, that despite all, even the most unfair of tragedies, there is some sense that nothing separates us from the love of God. But that is a hard won conviction which, fifteen years ago, I'm not sure I quite believed. Nor could I have said it to parents of a young child. One thing I realise, is how fortunate I have been, in all my funerals, to bury people who have had a long life!
I think I would admit the tragedy and the senselessness of it all.
I hope I would have the courage to talk about what we had experienced in those short few minutes, with all their fun and joy. And to seek some comfort for myself, and offer it to his parents, in the fact that he had died in joy. Eleven years old, running flat out, having no worries, and being full of life; experiencing life as it is meant to be. Perhaps we could hold on to that for a small comfort. But I would still say there is no rhyme or reason, and no answer we can provide... no justification. Maybe there is no answer at all.
The other thing I would want to say has to do with what I saw and felt at Peter's funeral. He was minister at Enfield when he became ill. This church is on the edge of a huge shopping centre car park. I've never seen it so full as yesterday. As I arrived, it seemed like the whole of the Uniting Church in South Australia, was streaming across the car park to the church. Perhaps this is what "the cloud of witnesses" means! Helen, Peter's wife, and others, spoke of the support of the tiny congregation who used to come and worship at home with Peter and her. She spoke of the support of family, of the Early Onset Dementia support groups, of carers, and others. Perhaps this is one answer to untimely death; we will stand together against you. We will bear each other up through the grief, until we can find some kind of rhythm to begin living again.
Would I have offered such support to the parents of that 11 year old?
Peter was a scholar and an intellectual. Not one who serves on a campus, but the kind that goes out and applies it "on the ground," with the poor. How pernicious an illness this was for him! Dementia for Peter, must have been like slow paralysis for an athlete; almost designed by evil to exact maximum suffering and humiliation. His death was as untimely, and unjust, as if that boy had been killed in his moment of joy.
We sang St Francis' Canticle of the Sun.
And you most kind and gentle death,
waiting to hush our latest breath,
You lead to heaven the child of God,
and Christ the Lord the way has trod.
Perhaps death, finally, is a release? The disease is the evil? I find no such answer here, although something in that hymn touched me deeply.
It is said that, finally, we are on our own. It is true that when I "board the boat to cross the river," no human person can come with me. I will face death alone. It strikes me, as an introverted and solitary sort of person, that I have been travelling towards the river unnecessarily alone. If Peter's funeral showed me anything, there is a rich community of faith which humanises, and strengthens us, in the face of adversity. (I'm sure there are other such communities, too, but the church is the one where I have made my home.)
Max, a friend, reflected with me about the palpable sense of community together, at the service. "I keep telling people to get more involved with their church," he said. "When they don't, they miss all this."
I'd be less than honest if I did not admit there are times church makes me sick. But there is also church at its best. And so we sang Lord of the Dance yesterday-
they cut me down and I leap up high
I am the dance that'll never, never die
and it was true! There was a moment of reality intruding into our grief. A moment when we saw life as it is meant to be.
There is no intellectual answer. There is no avoiding death. But there is life to be lived. So I will tuck the ball under my arm, and run while I can. I'll pull people out of harm's way, if I am the one close by. I will seek to comfort the broken hearted, and to have the grace to let them comfort me. And one day, there will be that long second or so, when I realise I am being hit by a car, and there will not be a gradual return to pain and consciousness. Or there will be the pronouncing a of death sentence in the doctor's office. The only preparation is to remember I have seen life as it is meant to be, and to continue to practice the faith. And then, perhaps, we'll see...